Dad. Boss. Colleague. We carry many labels. This post sprang from thinking about collective nouns for librarians. I’d seen another community addressed with one that I wasn’t sure was that apt. And it got me wondering: what is a collective noun for librarians? A shelf of librarians reflects a particular, physical approach to our work. What about a horizon of librarians? I quickly moved on to other things we are labeled or call ourselves and their impacts.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggested a stack of librarians. A quick web search will unearth many more.

A shush of librarians
A catalog of librarians
A volume of librarians
An answer of librarians

I always think of exultation of larks or susurration of starlings when I think of collective nouns. The birds can’t tell us anything verbally. We apply exultation to the larks, we hear the movement of the starlings susurration.

One thing that strikes me with the librarian nouns is an attempt to get at what we do. A shush shows external perceptions of librarianship. A catalog or an answer reflects work that some of us do. A volume, stack, or shelf talks about the physical artifacts we use. Although I suppose we could be mounting a volume, in the meaning of a digital drive.

The Company We Keep

I read The Scout Mindset recently. I’ve struggled to read books in the last few years for a lot of personal reasons and so just getting through it was an achievement of sorts. It’s an easy business-oriented read and, ironically, I found myself agreeing with a lot of the sections on bias and certainty! But I particularly liked how it dealt with identity, and how our self-identification can interfere with curiosity. The gist of it comes from this quote, from Paul Graham:

The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you

Keep Your Identity Small, by Paul Graham

I find the term dumb to be unnecessarily pejorative. A smart person with blinders on is still smart; they just can’t envision as much as someone who maintains a wider horizon. But this idea of holding your identity lightly is interesting to me. What names or labels do we take on that impact our decision-making or choices?

I work in a library. In fact, since arriving at law school, I’ve worked in spaces or on teams that would be called libraries or librarians. My library space and librarian team might reside within a larger entity but what we did was still recognizable, like an exultation of larks, to outsiders as library and librarian.

I’ve never been terribly fussed about titles. When I applied for my current job, it was posted as Chief Knowledge Officer but by the time I spoke to the recruiter, they’d rethought it. In hindsight, some other C-suite folks probably had their noses bent out of joint or territory impinged upon. But I told the recruiter that I didn’t really care what the title was so much as what the work was. I would be fine with any title that, within the organization, allowed me to get the work done.

Am I a librarian? I call myself that as a shorthand for people who ask. But I don’t deal with stacks, or shelves, or volumes, or answers that often. Library Director? Leader? Manager? Strategist? Advisor? I’m mostly a librarian because I dwell among librarians. It is the tether that describes my context for others, a label applied to me for ease of categorization. But it’s not a label I hold too closely. It is simply easier than explaining what I mean when I say: “I help people access information.”

Name Calling

I grew up reading a lot of Irish and Celtic-inspired fiction. You learned quickly that one’s true name was not something to be bandied about, that names were important. Misnaming something or someone could be catastrophic. An enemy who knew our true name could control us.

Someone recently referred to me as a thought leader, a term I’m not particularly fond of even when it’s not applied to me. When I’m labeled, I take into account the person’s intent. The label may be an apt reflection of me for that person, and the label is one that the person believes in; they didn’t apply it with an eye roll. I appreciate the sharing, the passion, and evangelism that the term connotes, even if the term itself isn’t one I’d use about myself or others.

I try to live within my means. A thought leader is, for me, an expert. Personal branding is, for me, reputation. I would tend to refer to or think of someone as an expert, or judge someone based on their reputation. It’s not that I oppose the other words. There are just some labels that I don’t feel are appropriate to use myself, even though I would absolutely say “I am an expert in library management.”

I appreciated the sentiment if not the label. We can’t always determine what we are called. If you work in a library, you are probably going to be called a librarian. That gives some people fits, because a librarian may be deemed to have certain educational accomplishments or status. Obviously, if it’s an inappropriate label, you should speak out. I’m not sure I’ve ever been called a lawyer but I would correct that misunderstanding because, although holding a law degree, I’ve not been called to any bar.

Someone I worked with early in my career told me that I was not collegial. It was during a part of my early career development where I was learning to say no. Speak truth to power. Sometimes we are labeled because we do not conform or stay within our caste or other expectations laid upon us. That was a negative label with positive outcomes. I have thought about that conversation frequently down the decades, assessing my own actions and whether I needed to be more collegial.

It’s a bit like saying thank you. I find it hard to say when someone has given me a compliment, not always able to align my perception of my actions and their perception. It’s a life long challenge: the first time I was told I couldn’t take a compliment was at the law firm I worked for in high school. Even now, I hear myself “SAY THANK YOU” when someone is being generous in their praise. Labels can sometimes tell us where we can improve.

Sometimes labels can be both positive and reinvigorating. I had a long conversation about law library management recently and the person I spoke to told me I had a growth mindset. I have never thought of myself in those terms and had no idea it was a term of art. Unlike thought leader, growth mindset resonated with me a bit more. I’m not a very jargony person, and so would be unlikely to use it myself (let alone about myself) but I see myself in the term.

Even in the short time since that conversation, the term has come back into my mind. Putting aside the fact that sometimes we recall positive moments more frequently because they’re positive, I find it elbowing into my thoughts like collegiality does. The label makes me ask the same questions: am I making decisions that reflect a growth mindset? Are my choices about how we can do the most with what we have available or am I captured by seeing what is lost, in a budget cut or staff reductions?

I would like to be a thoughtful leader. I try to be collegial. I aim for a growth mindset. I’ve been called dad. Brother. Coach. Hey you. The names we call ourselves and others matter. For me, the labels applied by others often give me an opportunity to look at myself and think about their application. Hopefully, whether positive or negative, I can find some opportunity to do better.